Life & Culture

Dr Elli Cannon: what it means when your doctor says "You have Osteopenia"


Osteopenia is a condition when the bones have lost some of their density. They are not as strong and thick as normal bones, but they are not bad enough to be termed osteoporosis. It is part of a spectrum of bone change and osteopenia is the stage before osteoporosis.

It means you are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis but not everyone with osteopenia will develop osteoporosis. Some people naturally have osteopenia as they just naturally have a lower bone density.

Usually, osteopenia is what’s called an “incidental finding” : it causes no symptoms so it is more than likely you wouldn’t know. It is diagnosed on a bone density scan which would be done to look for osteoporosis if you were thought to be at risk. Osteopenia makes breaking a bone slightly more likely (although not as much as osteoporosis) so if you had an unexpected fracture, your doctor would order the scan.

We are all at risk of osteopenia as we age. Bone strength peaks at 30 and then starts to decline at that point. Women are more likely to develop osteopenia than men as their peak bone density is lower to start with and the menopause contributes to a reduction in bone strength.

Smoking, having a low BMI, an early menopause and a family history of osteoporosis are all strong risk factors.
Lack of exercise, high alcohol intake, and prolonged use of certain medications particularly steroids also contribute, as do eating disorders and bowel conditions that do not allow your body to absorb nutrients such as calcium.

The goal of treatment for osteopenia is to prevent deterioration into osteoporosis. This is mainly lifestyle based to remove the risk factors for worsening bone strength. Avoid smoking and excess alcohol, and look at your calcium and vitamin D intake. It is worth supplementing with a combination tablet, with the agreement of your GP.

Start weight-bearing exercise, as long as your physical health allows.

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